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Rebels get serious about a winning football team, Joe Santoro says

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

The UNLV Rebels have finally gotten serious about the sport of football.

“Rebel nation, we will win,” said Marcus Arroyo late last week when he was introduced as the Rebels 12th head football coach in school history. “We’ll build a winner that will last.”

The Rebels have a new $35 million practice facility, a $2 billion stadium, a new $7.7 million head coach and, lest you forget, a red Fremont Cannon that is priceless.

The Nevada Wolf Pack, by comparison, has a date after the holidays in beautiful Boise with the Ohio Bobcats in the Mashed Potato Bowl.

“I’m so fired up,” Arroyo declared in front of a excited Rebel-crazy crowd last week.

What in the name of Chris Ault is going on in this state? First the Rebels win the Fremont Cannon for the second year in a row and now this? A real, qualified, exciting coach in charge of the Rebels whose done more in his career than beat the Reed Raiders for the Nevada high school state title?

Make it stop. Arroyo is fired up. The Rebels are fired up. Las Vegas is on fire with Rebel red and is becoming the sports Mecca of the free world with the NFL, NHL and a stadium that would make the ancient Romans jealous.

What does the Pack have? Well, no Fremont Cannon again. And a fan base that is afraid the authorities will show up at their front door and arrest them for slapping the helmets of a few UNLV players back on Nov. 30 at Mackay Stadium. Rebel Nation is fired up. Pack Nation needs a hug.

But maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe Wolf Pack Nation has nothing at all to be afraid of down south after all. Arroyo is fired up? Big deal. All new coaches are fired up the day they become an instant millionaire. Fired, after all, is a word all Rebel football coaches over the past five decades have come to know personally. The last eight of those coaches, starting with Harvey Hyde in 1982 and ending with Tony Sanchez last month, all left the Rebels with a losing career record. They came in fired up and all left, well, fired.

This one, though, just feels different. It feels like the start of a Wolf Pack nightmare. Maybe it’s the $7.7 million contract over five years that Arroyo received to coach one of the worst football programs in the nation. Maybe it’s because Arroyo’s pedigree includes the last three years at Oregon. Oregon, after all, has a way of striking fear in all that is silver and blue. Maybe it’s the always present Fertitta Family in Las Vegas of Ultimate Fighting Championship and Station Casino fame with their never-ending supply of cash.

Maybe it’s because the Rebels finally hired a coach that actually deserved to be a Division I head coach. Maybe it’s because the Fremont Cannon just got its second coat of red paint in the last two years. And maybe it’s because of all those things combined.

All we know is that the Nevada Wolf Pack better take notice of what is going on down south of Tonopah. The Rebels are throwing their cash around again. Only this time, maybe for the first time in their failure-filled fraud of a football program’s feeble 52-season history, they might have finally figured out where to throw it.

Arroyo designed and directed the Oregon offense that put 77 points on the Wolf Pack just three months ago. He’s coached in the NFL (Tampa Bay in 2014) and at Oklahoma State and Cal, among other famous places. He could have waited for a real Division I head coaching job that didn’t need building from the ground up, brick by brick. He chose UNLV.

“We’ve found someone who is smart, who is tough, who is determined,” UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois said. “He has the character to lead, the energy and will to build and a passion to galvanize.”

Desiree Reed-Francois, despite her Las Vegas showgirl name, apparently has the savvy and smarts to hire one of the top up-and-coming offensive minds in college football. It helps, of course, that she had $7.7 million reasons for Arroyo to take the job. But give Reed-Francois credit for knowing a great young coach when she sees one. What was the last UNLV athletic director who could say the same thing? You might have to go back to Bill Ireland, who hired Jerry Tarkanian for men’s basketball in 1973.

“I’ve been preparing for this job my whole life,” Arroyo said last week. “I wanted this job. This job was a splash on the radar and something I was immediately drawn to. I wanted this job from the jump. I made it a point to come get it.”

Tony Sanchez wanted it, too. Bobby Hauck wanted it. Mike Sanford wanted it. Even John Robinson wanted it, like Jeff Horton, Jim Strong, Wayne Nunnely and Harvey Hyde before him. Even Ault wanted it for a few minutes back in 1993. All (except Ault, who didn’t take the job) ended up leaving Las Vegas worse off than Nicolas Cage. And, no, they didn’t get Elisabeth Shue as a consolation prize.

OK, yes, we get it. The lure and lights of Las Vegas have a way of blinding otherwise intelligent, sane-thinking, rational individuals who have made all the right career decisions until they one day find themselves in Las Vegas’ coaching graveyard. You can only live for so long, after all, in such places as Eugene, Ore., Stillwater, Okla., or Laramie, Wyo., three of Arroyo’s former coaching homes. Sooner or later you need something open past 9 p.m. other than a 7-Eleven.

But UNLV? The place where head coaching careers go to die? This is a football program that has had two winning seasons in its last 25 years. The Pack will have two winning seasons in the last two years no matter what happens in the Sweet Potato Bowl and nobody is going to throw parade down Virginia Street.

UNLV has been to just four bowl games in five decades. The last head coach to escape Las Vegas with a winning record was Tony Knap in Ronald Regan’s first year as president (1981). Just one Rebel head coach (Ault’s boss Ron Meyer) became a Division I head coach somewhere else (SMU) after he escaped Las Vegas.

Arroyo, though, just feels different. He’s not a high school coach. He’s not a Division I-AA coach. He’s not a junior college coach. He’s not a head coach coming out of retirement. He feels legitimate. He sounds legitimate. He’s young. He had options. But he chose UNLV. He didn’t just win the job along with a pair of free buffets at Circus Circus.

Arroyo, it seems, is an anti-UNLV coach. He actually seems qualified. He’s a guy you’d want your son to play for. He’s a guy your son would want to play for.

Imagine that.

Bill Ireland was a baseball coach from up north in Reno. Ron Meyer was a NFL scout with the Dallas Cowboys. Tony Knap was Boise State’s head coach when Boise State was in its formative years as a four-year institution. Harvey Hyde was a junior college coach. Wayne Nunnely was already in the building as a UNLV assistant and a former UNLV player. Jim Strong served as an assistant at Arkansas, Minnesota and Notre Dame but, it turned out, was just a creation of Lou Holtz. Jeff Horton was an Ault creation and a way of simply sticking it to big brother up north. John Robinson was just looking for a way to spend his golden years going to shows and buffets. He was nothing more than the Rebels’ football version of an aging lounge act. Mike Sanford was a buddy of Robinson’s, having coached with him at USC. Bobby Hauck came from Montana and Tony Sanchez came from Bishop Gorman High.

The sad part of it all for Rebel Nation was that UNLV was a step down for pretty much all of them, including the high school coach.

Arroyo, on the other hand, deserves this opportunity. He deserves $7.7 million because he likely could have gotten it somewhere else. Nobody else was going to hire Sanchez as a Division I head coach back in 2015.

Arroyo is different. UNLV might be different from this point on. That alone should put the Wolf Pack on notice.

“That I get to do this (become a head coach) at UNLV at this unique time in this community is amazing,” said Arroyo, who will serve as Oregon’s offensive coordinator in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day against Jay Norvell’s hometown Wisconsin Badgers.

Unique is a good word for Las Vegas. Arroyo will find that out soon enough. But give him time. He’s still in the giddy stage of his Las Vegas experience.

Arroyo sounded last week like a wide-eyed 21-year-old from Dead Cow, Oklahoma who just got off the Greyhound bus and stepped onto the Las Vegas Strip with a roll of $100 bills in his shirt pocket. He might be in for a rude awakening after he leaves the safety of the Oregon Ducks after the Rose Bowl. That’s when the reality of trying to build a program on life support into a champion will fully set in.

Las Vegas, we’re told, is not always what it seems to be. A quick drive down Las Vegas Boulevard, after all, will reveal the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and a pyramid. Right now Arroyo believes that all those things are real.

“It’s eclectic,” said the 39-year-old Arroyo, of Las Vegas. “It’s a sports town. It wants to be great. The vibrancy that is happening right now, you can feel it. The enthusiasm and passion of this community is contagious right now.”

Don’t tell Arroyo, but all of that vibrancy, excitement, energy and passion is not for the Rebel football program. It’s never been for the Rebel football program, inside or outside the Rebel campus.

That passion and enthusiasm started with the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup finals two years ago. And it has continued with the anticipation of the opening of the $2 billion Allegiant Stadium that will be the home of the NFL’s Raiders next fall. It’s a stadium, by the way, that is only allowing the Rebels inside its gates to help pay the bills, like they were just another tractor pull, RV show and rib festival.

Arroyo will discover all of that soon enough. Until then, however, he’s got $7.7 million reasons to fall in love with Las Vegas.

“We’ll block out the naysayers,” Arroyo said.

Be afraid, Wolf Pack fans. Be very afraid. Odds are the Rebels have finally gotten it right with Arroyo.

What if UNLV, and not the Wolf Pack, becomes the next Boise State Broncos? What if UNLV is suddenly going to the Mountain West title game year after year? What if the Rebels grow up, become a football power in a state of the art stadium and join the Pac-12, leaving the Pack all alone in the meaningless Mountain West?

Make it stop.

The Wolf Pack has enjoyed a relatively stress-free existence with its rival to the south in recent decades. The Pack, after all, could go 7-6 every year as long as the year included a fresh coat of blue paint on the Fremont cannon. No matter how boring, frustrating or meaningless a Wolf Pack season would be in recent decades, Pack fans could always take comfort in knowing UNLV’s season was worse. The Pack, after all, beat UNLV 22 out of 31 times from 1985 through 2018. That’s a lot of blue paint.

UNLV has been the Pack’s comfort food in recent decades. No matter how bad things have gotten in northern Nevada around Mackay Stadium there was always UNLV to cheer things up.

Until now.

All of those good feelings might be coming to an end if Arroyo is as good as he sounds. This — UNLV being as smart, talented and hard working as its budget is large — is what Ault was always afraid of. Ault, who spent three years in Las Vegas as an assistant under Meyer in the 1970s, always has known the potential of Rebel football. He knew that’s where the state’s riches were buried. He knew that if UNLV really wanted to, it could simply buy a successful football program. It’s why he almost allowed them to buy him back in 1993.

UNLV, it seems, has finally figured out that you can buy anything sports related. You want a NFL team? No problem. A NHL team? That’s easy. A $2 billion stadium. Hey, we built the Statue of Liberty here, didn’t we?

This is the cold hard truth of Nevada sports right now. The difference between northern Nevada and southern Nevada in the sports world can now be measured only by NASA.

What Las Vegas wants, it gets. And that includes the Fremont Cannon. And great, young, up-and-coming coaches.

UNLV’s possible domination of the Pack, it seems, has already started. The Rebels, after all, have beaten the Pack three times in the last six years on the field and that was with Hauck and Sanchez as coach, two guys who had one (7-6 in 2013) winning season out of 10 at UNLV.

What is Arroyo going to do? Hopefully he used up all his points against the Pack back in September in Eugene.

Nobody is saying Arroyo is a better coach than Norvell. Not right now. Norvell, after all, is Arroyo with two more decades of experience under his coaching tool belt. Norvell was an assistant at a Power Five school when Arroyo was quarterbacking at Colfax High in the mid 1990s. Experience still has its advantages in coaching. That’s the conventional theory, at least.

But Arroyo has a few advantages over Norvell heading into his first year at UNLV that Norvell didn’t have when he was hired at Nevada.

Arroyo knows the Mountain West. He coached at San Jose State and Wyoming. He played at San Jose State, beating the Wolf Pack as the Spartans’ quarterback in 2000 at Mackay Stadium and with a five-touchdown performance in 2001 in San Jose.

Arroyo grew up in northern California (Colfax, Calif.) and has a lot of recruiting connections in the region. He coached for a winning team in the Pac-12 (Oregon). The mighty Ducks carry a lot of weight up and down the west coast.

“He knows the west and is one of the country’s best recruiters,” Reed-Francois said.

Arroyo, don’t forget, also has a $2 billion stadium and a $35 million practice facility with which to wine and dine recruits. And he has an offensive playbook to match all of those dollar signs.

Imagine being 18-years-old on your recruiting trip to a fantasy city that never closes and you look up and see your likeness on a gigantic scoreboard inside a $2 billion stadium. Hey, you know how youngsters like gadgets these days. Not even an Awful Awful burger with everything on it can compete with that, no matter how many fries you throw in.

Yes, Pack fans, Chris Ault’s worst nightmare might finally be coming true. Rebel Nation might not be as fake as the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty on Las Vegas Boulevard anymore.